Monday, August 31, 2015

TEN YEARS

Ten years ago today, we watched & heard about the destruction of some big hurricane that made landfall on the East Coast. To most mid-westerners, a hurricane is a foreign thought, much like ice storms in Atlanta, so I hope to share the event from a perspective of someone who witnessed Katrina aftermath first hand. 

To give some history, Katrina began over the Caribbean, worked it's way up Florida, over to the Gulf of Mexico, and up to Louisiana before dissipating further up the rest of the East Coast. It reached category 5 somewhere near Florida and by the time it hit New Orleans, was a category 3. As it stands today, Hurricane Katrina was the most costly hurricane to ever hit the U.S., coming in around $108 BILLION in property damage, according to the National Hurricane Center. 

It is easier to understand Katrina and its eradication by understanding the composition of New Orleans. Imagine the city as a bowl floating in a bathtub. At the top of the bowl; on one side is Lake Pontchartrain and on the other is the Mississippi River outlining the rim. To help keep the bowl from drowning, levees add additional height to the sides. Unfortunately, the wrath of Katrina was able to breach many of the levees and either flooded over them or broke them by force, essentially "flooding" the bowl.


Approximately 3 weeks after my 15th birthday, the nightly news my family watched devoutly at 5:30pm CST began to flood with Hurricane Katrina reports. The phrase swept the media as we sat in the Midwest, waving summer goodbye. Growing up, I have learned most people do not get the feelings I do, however watching the news day after day and hearing "Katrina this, Katrina that, Katrina, Katrina, Katrina..." made my ears bleed, figuratively speaking. Afters days, weeks, months of hearing and seeing the progression of Hurricane Katrina, I started to beg my parents to go help New Orleans. Don't ask me the miracles God worked, but somehow before I knew it, my family and I along with about 40 other Mid-westerners were on a coach bus headed to New Orleans to help with the reconstruction. 

December of 2005, 4 months after Katrina hit was when we went to help. The shock we had upon arriving in New Orleans was unimaginable. Initially, just seeing piles of abandon cars under the freeways, convenient stores that looked like they had been closed for years, and the Super Dome gated and shutdown was enough of a shock. We stayed at a church (don't ask me where) that had cots setup for us. The next day when we woke up, we split into teams based on expertise and were given our assignments. We hopped on the bus and headed to the first home we were going to "gut". Before arriving, we were driven around as a local from the church briefed us on what we were about to experience. 

Slowly, we started seeing houses with water lines easily depicting where the water stood after the storm. They began about knee height and before you knew it, the water marks were almost to the second floor. I vaguely remember hearing our leader mumble "respect the owners, this is their life..." as I fixed my eyes on buildings with large spray painted "x-codes/Katrina crosses/search codes". It was horrifying driving through neighborhoods, I will leave it at that. The areas we went into were still completely uninhabited and even blocked from entry apart from relief teams. 

I don't remember how many houses I helped gut, but I will guess ~4-5. Some, the owners were there, some they weren't. It was extremely somber. When we arrived, someone in our group would survey as much of the house as possible, since there were kids in our group, there might be things we just shouldn't find. Most often, the house was so destroyed, you couldn't even get inside without starting to clean. We wore white hazmat suits and surgical masks because mold had infested everything. The 2 most memorable parts of the experience to me were; the refrigerators and swinging a sledgehammer. The refrigerators were bio-hazard and had to be treated as such. They nearly all still had water in from the storm, believe it or not. The strong men would carry them out to the curb where we had begun a "garbage pile". After having one explode open and be the worst smell I have ever experienced, they started putting straps around the doors to prevent that. Secondly, sledgehammers. So, these houses were ruined from sitting in water for weeks that we had to empty everything in the house down to the bare bones structure. Ask my parents about watching me, as a 15 year old, swinging a sledgehammer 1/5 my weight at kitchen cabinets. Needless to say, my feet may have left the ground a time or two. 

It was heart-breaking to be around the homeowners. I could see myself in their shoes just knowing natural disasters can happen anywhere to anyone. You didn't want to disrespect their things, yet even their most personal belongings were not safe to keep, including picture albums or family heirlooms. They cried, and all you could do was say we were there to help them worry about one less thing. They thanked us profusely and explained they had signed up with 10+ organizations to help clean their house. The church we worked for was telling us about the HUNDREDS of people who had signed up for help.

While there, we saw a lot of the city. We stopped on Canal Street, because it was one of the few places with any people. It was touching that as we walked down the street in our matching "Volunteer Relief" shirts, the number of locals that thanked us. 
I think we found an open restaurant, Craw Daddy's maybe, and ate outside because the 60 degree weather in December was somewhat amazing to us Wisconsinites. It was the only semi-normal experience we had on our trip.

I visited New Orleans last year, in February 2014, for a work event of my boyfriends', which was my first time being back since 2005. I definitely had goosebumps most of the trip and many flashbacks about my first visit. It was astonishing how life has moved on since then, which is awesome. From what I heard, there is still evidence of the storm, but I'm sure they try to hide it and forget about it. Among us visitors, it came up a couple times in conversation about Katrina, but mostly shrugged off since life has seemingly moved on.

I certainly won't forget the lives I touched and that equally touched me along with the experience I had. =)

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